RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 3: Darnell Martin’s “Cadillac Records” (2008)


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The Players…

Adrien Brody, Jeffery Wright, Columbus Short, Mos Def, Eaamon Walker, Cedric the Entertainer and Beyonce Knowles.


The Story…

The history of Chess Records over the course of three decades reveals the rise (and occasional fall) of Chicago musical luminaries such as Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and Etta James, all planting the roots of rock n’ roll…and the notoriety that can come with it.


The Rant…

I love music. I love movies too, but it’s only a close second. The reason why this blog is about movies is because I can wrap my head around that art form. Music is just so wide and varied and freakin’ complicated that I lack the verbiage to document opinions about it. Music just goes on forever, but there is a starting gate somewhere for the first motion picture. I can go from there. Anyway, anyone who knows me knows that I am a rock n’ roll guy. Have been since I got a hold of dad’s Elton John tapes (yes, tapes). Love rock n’ roll; it’s in my DNA. But I do have a great deal of respect for the genre’s progenitors. Cats like Chuck Berry (possibly the world’s first guitar hero. Ask Keith Richards), Louis Jordan (a personal favorite of mine), Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, Ruth Brown and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins—to name a few—I have easily and often cut my teeth on again and again. There could be no rock without these folks.

When I was younger in my music collecting, I was a completist. Got into a band and/or singer I liked? Had to collect the back catalogue. Delving further into sniffing about a band’s roots, I’d investigate their influences. For instance, I discovered Kraftwerk by way of Joy Division by way of New Order. That kind of sifting. I learned that the thrill of the hunt (both finding records and tracing a band’s roots) could be just as bracing as the albums I’d eventually come to wear out.

This detective outcropped to where the music physically came from. As a kid and up until now, I always dug maps. I have an outdated atlas from NatGeo kicking around somewhere, battered from my endless searching. Nowadays I occasionally like to futz around with Google Maps. Y’know, because it’s cheaper than actually travel, an the satellite images fascinate me. Now granted as a kid, I couldn’t just hop on a plane to England to visit Elton’s hometown, but it gave me a sense of wonder to hear where my musical idols came from, hence the map thing. Next best thing to being there: artists bios and a place they called home. To put it simply: “The Beatles are cool. Where the heck is Liverpool?”

Paired with my twin interests in music and travel (if only in my mind), I later heard about places where certain kinds of music originated. Face it, America is a big place, populated with all sorts of creative weirdoes. Regardless of which coast you hail from, there’s gonna be a local music scene that’s uniquely, well, unique. Places like the rustic Mississippi Delta, good ol’ Memphis, Tennessee, New York’s downtrodden Lower East Side or the raked suburbs of Los Angeles. A good portion of most modern rock music can be traced back to such places. And from those places came legendary recording studios like Sun Records and Stax in Memphis, Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Abbey Road in London, or Hitsville USA in Detroit.

Not to mention Chess Records, the home of Chicago electric blues…


Leonard Chess (Brody) is a humble junk dealer, living the typical hardscrabble existence in the dumps of Southside. Needless to say, he’s broke and has very little prospects. Okay, none. What he really wants to do is open a nightclub for the musicians to play the “race music” he so enjoys, but first he’s gotta save his pennies for someday.

McKinley Morganfield—better known to his friends as Muddy Waters (Wright)—is a broke-ass sharecropper from the Mississippi Delta, living a thankless, backbreaking existence hoeing rows and earning nary a penny for his labors. What he’d rather be doing is strumming on his beater guitar, and maybe earn a living off of that someday, too. But first things first he’s gotta get off the farm.

Fast-forward a few years. Chess dumped the dump and got his bar; Waters got off the plantation, guitar in tow. The first settled down and dug in. The second got himself up Chicago way, playing his axe in street, hopeful to score a deal with his rip roaring slide guitar licks. After a fateful evening of improv at Chess’ bar where a weary Southern black guitar slinger meets a working class white Jewish barkeep…well let’s just say that from such humble beginnings, legacies are born.

Chess takes interest in Waters’ jamming and suggests they cut a record together. At first Waters is confused. What’s a curious peckerwood Jewish bartender know about music? Turns out a lot. Not long after Chess cuts a hit for Muddy, he starts to wrangle in other bluesy talents from around the Chicago circuit. There’s Little Walter, diminutive harp player and Waters’ aide-de-campe; Howlin’ Wolf, a burly blues singer from down Mississippi way; bluesman Willie Dixon who quickly becomes the house songwriter; upstart guitar slinger Chuck Berry who ushers in a new kind of music dubbed “rock and roll.” And lastly blues chanteuse Etta James, whose heartbreaking vocals could pull the tears from the stoniest of eyes. Yes indeed, the fledgling Chess Records roster quickly become synonymous with rhythm and blues.

Over the next few decades, Chess Records is peerless in it attraction and distribution of all kinds of “race music,” pioneering sounds and bringing to the masses the styles of Chicago electric blues, jump blues, early rock ‘n roll and whole slew of other styles that take the nation by storm. But all is not golden in Camelot. With great fame and fortune can come high peaks, yes, but also some crushing pitfalls. The life of a popular musician can swim in fortune and fame, but also foster loss, deception and the occasional tragedy. Not got for business, and nothing can last forever.

So the short, influential life of Leonard Chess and his recording studio was once the house of blues, molding the culture of Chicago’s music scene for decades to come, shared success and failure equally. Not all of it was wine, women and song. Well, most of it was. But for a time, the musical nexus of America was a dumpy recording studio in Chicago’s south side…


The frank plot outline above is in direct response to a Hollywood device I’ve always had trouble with: the ensemble biopic. Whereas a biopic with one central character, say the big screen story of Walk The Line, has a fulcrum to pivot on (i.e. Johnny Cash), a story involving a family like the Chess Records players tends to lack a tentpole for which the entire story can hang. To remedy this problem, the movie employs another device that I sometimes take issue with: a narrator.

Now don’t get me wrong, a lot of good movies have employed a narrator to great effect. Forrest Gump is a good example, and so was Fight Club (odd that these two movies were adaptations of novels, where narrators are indispensible. Hmm). In Cadillac Records, Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer, adopting a rather off-putting caricature of your stereotypical bluesman) serves as the voice and storyteller of Chess Records’ rise and fall. Here’s the issue: stories about places, and the ensemble of players within, seem to employ a narrator when the story is too varied and needs a focus. In other words, the story can’t stand by itself. Cedric does a serviceable job as Records’ spinner of tales, but ultimately wasn’t necessary.

There’s enough going on in and around Chess to scoop up your attention just by itself. Take the opening credits. Cinema verite of the sounds, sight and songs of the subject matter. The montage was very indie, which set my mind up for some expectations. Namely, the needful drive to set the film apart form Hollywood biopics ran fast and loose, which is an affliction of most indie films. Another trouble with biopics is you gotta embellish and exaggerate the story, since the reality is probably a lot more mundane. For instance, we can’t have many scenes where Chess is negotiating contracts with the potential talent (which must always be more involved than what Hollywood portrays, doubtless with lawyers stinking up the joint) or the unglamorous trials of touring via bus to points afar. You get what I mean; you gotta strip the story down to meat and bone and spice up the meat to make the story tastier.

From the opening credits we sure do get fast, loose and spicy. Scene upon scene serving as touchstones for the origins of Chess Records. Chess in the junkyard, Waters on the plantations. Chess in the bar, Waters on the Chicago streets. The struggles, successes and women (of which there is a lot) come in at rapid clip. It feels like this movie is in a hurry. And it is, trying to cram in as much info as possible to bookend the scenes that matter most: the musical ones. No real surprise there, but before I get too academic about it all (and I’ve noticed with these reviews my voice has been getting more uptight and stentorian with each passing week. Sorry about the lack of snark. I’m gonna try an fix that later on), I gotta get down with the film’s more accessible points beyond the technical crap.

Stuff like dialogue, which at the outset is none too promising. I’m not saying the writing is shoddy (which it kinda is), but how it’s delivered. Wright makes for an outstanding Muddy, but his delivery is rather unconvincing, not unlike the rest of the cast. He’s like your stereotypical journeyman blues guy, rough on the outside due to hard promises, golden on the inside for his gift for creating joy from his axe. Now Wright made for a damn fine Muddy Waters, all gritty and downbeat, but he had to work with what he was given, and he comes across rather one-note. A good note, but narrow all the same. As an aside, I’ve seen a couple of films here at RIORI that Wright starred in, and he is fast becoming a favorite character actor of mine. He’s very versatile in his work, and is more the less the lead of the picture, shouldering out Oscar winner Brody.

Brody as the titular music tycoon is sort of blah despite being the alleged center on which the whole story spins. Wright steals the show. As do most of the other players. Hot-headed Columbus Short as Little Walter is all fire and naïveté and plays the Flava Flav to Waters’ Chuck D. Another subtly impressive role was Eamon Walker’s portrayal of Howlin’ Wolf. Walker is an imposing charater, darker and deeper than Muddy. He was kind of scary too, not unlike the mountain of the actual man.

Here’s a treat: Mos Def as Chuck Berry. What a hoot. He’s the comic relief, all freewheeling and pop star without a whit of irony. Def has a nice Berry voice, not on point but you gotta give credit where it’s due. It’s kind of hard to screw up a role of a musician when you’re a musician yourself. But on the other hand there’s Beyonce at Etta James. The less about that the better. She’s a singer. She’s a singer playing a singer. She’s all melodrama and singled dimension. She’s got sass but should stick with singing, which for the most part she does belting out James’ signature tunes with aplomb.

Okay. There. We’ve covered the acting bases. The acting is scattershot overall, and not many of the characters (save Wright) are consistency convincing. Records is movie with an ensemble cast. The cast doesn’t play well with—off—each other. Moving on.

There’s a lot of Hollywood trappings in Records also, despite it being an indie film. For instance, the old tried and true schtick of crossing the race barrier. The film makes no bones about both Chess and Waters being on the outside, but of course between their synergy, both rise to fame and fortune. There are again stereotypical scenes addressing race relations and how music transcends all and blah blah blah. It’s a very tried trope. To trim up the film, maybe it should have been avoided altogether. I mean, c’mon. Hell, these are black blues singers working with a Jewish guy during the height of racial segregation in urban 1960s Chicago, on the air or otherwise. What the hell do you thinks gonna happen? The whole race card game is played, Hollywood. We get it. Stop reminding us. Or at least save it for one of Ken Burns’ epic PBS documentaries. Not all music stories need to be so drenched in tragedy. Not to downplay it (because without that tension, would the music have been so seminal?) but it’s stale.

What really sinks Records is too much melodrama and (you guessed it) slow pacing. Again with the pacing. There’s a lot to say about the history of Chess Records, and Cedric does his damndest to keep us apprised, but every scene is just slammed onto the screen as if the director is gonna run out of film. There’s a lot say, all right, but as an audience we don’t want to feel hurried. Watching the movie I had this recurring feeling that I had missed something. Out of breath is a bad way to watch a movie.

I love music. I want to love movies about music (not movie musicals, I generally think that sh*t’s corny). I wanted to love Cadillac Records. I didn’t. The music Chess put out hit close to my LP collection heart, but the tale of how those tunes were spun were hampered with Hollywood stereotypes and rushed production.

You know what? It takes dozens of takes to get a movie right. Sometimes with a song you can do it unjust  one. Maybe I should just’ve stuck with the albums.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Despite my enthusiasm for the subject, relent it. The film is too rushed, too staged and too fragile.


Stray Observations…

  • Mos Def as Chuck Berry. Is it a bad thing that all my fave hip-hop artists become actors? They always quit rapping.
  • “There’s your riff right there.” “Ain’t nothing to that.” Understatement of the career.
  • That tear. “She’s gonna need milk.”
  • Hot sauce. Yes. Some cultural touchstones really do transcend barriers.
  • “Skinny motherf*cker…”

Next Installment…

Aspiring writer Rob Brown is Finding Forrester to be a misanthrope, a crank and quite possibly the best teacher he’s ever had.


RIORI Vol. 1, Installment 4: Woody Allen’s “Midnight In Paris” (2011)


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The Players…

Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cottiliard, Tom Hiddleston, Alison Pill, Corey Stoll, Adrien Brody and Kathy Bates.


The Story…

Would-be novelist Gil visits Paris with his fiancé and her family to soak up the local culture. One night, after too much family time, Gil hitches a ride in a classic Peugeot and finds himself magically transported back in time to the Paris of the 1920’s. Gil finds rubbing elbows and trading drinks with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and other luminaries of the ex-pat Jazz Age sure beats yet another jaunt to the Louvre.


The Rant…

I only like good movies. I often scan AllMovie or Netflix to see if my opinions of movies match up with what either the critics’ takes are or what audience ratings indicate. But are the films good because they jibe with what strangers have to say? Because there are other like-minded people out there with agreeable opinions such as my own? Is this snobbery? Everyone thinks that his or her tastes are great. Folks can get pretty heady about such stuff.

I dunno. Maybe. Like I said, I only like good movies.

Maybe I was little too harsh in my last installment, covering the mindwipe that was Drive starring Ryan Gosling and Bryan Cranston. It wasn’t all bad. It had its moments. It just wasn’t what I wanted to expect (and I didn’t really know what to expect). I still wouldn’t recommend it though. What I’m saying is a little thoughtfulness in my critiques might be a welcome thing. I can rail with the best of them, and when a film is disjointed, poorly paced, fails to follow interior logic, or if the acting is just plain dumb, I get cranky. But still, I feel a little thoughtfulness can go a long way.

Which brings us to this installment. Midnight In Paris was not a critical dud, and audiences happily plunked down their monies to catch it. So how does this film fall under the aegis of “dubious reputation of lack of box office mojo?” One small thing that I intend to expound upon for as many paragraphs as it takes. That thing the audiences were complaining about—if you can believe this coming from Woody Allen’s oeuvre—that it was “overly intellectual.”

Like this is a crime. We as filmgoers are already fed to the choking point—mostly during summer—with so much pabulum already, one would think a intellectual film that did well at the box office would be a good thing. I think it is. I’ve seen enough lowbrow films in my day (and don’t get me wrong, I find I like any Adam Sandler movie that has him playing a sport delightful. Too bad there are, like, only two) to bang my head against the wall and spit up my popcorn, threatening to walk out of the theatre. But I also like my Fellini, Kurosawa and, yes, Woody Allen films too. Most of those are thoughtful, smart pieces of cinema that could be or were popular.

So what’s wrong with “smart film?” Does it make the average moviegoer feel dumb? I heard somewhere that there was a theater warning patrons that Terrence Malick’s Tree Of Life had, not graphic violence, sexual situations or extreme language, but “philosophical overtones and existential themes”. Stop the projectors! This was a warning. A warning. To average citizens. About smart sh*t in a Brad Pitt movie. Huh? This is a bad thing, apparently, according to the laymen.

Here’s a fact: people are stupid. I don’t mean people in general. I mean the collective sheeplike hive mind that is the nebulous concept of “people” is what is stupid. “What do they know?” is a phrase bandied about by all of us at one point in time. “They” is people, and if people are made to feel stupid, then they get what they deserve, and’ll probably miss out on cool sh*t and die angry.

Before I go off on another bilious tear, let me say that tempering thoughtfulness with intellectualism made Midnight In Paris a small gem…


Gil (Wilson) is a Hollywood hack and a budding novelist. When he and his fiancé Inez (McAdams) and her parents take a trip to the City of Lights, Inez and family are too caught up in the idea of Paris, its pretensions, for Gil’s tastes. He eventually gets restless with being inundated with too much Parisian culture. He goes for a stroll one evening, lost in the winding streets after too much wine when at midnight, he happens upon a ride in a classic Peugeot. Gil’s magically transported back in time to a swinging party hosted by none other than the Fitzgeralds, Zelda and F Scott to be precise, with lots of bathtub gin and a live performance by Cole Porter. Over the course of several evenings, Gil drinks with Hemingway (Stoll), gets writing advice from Gertrude Stein (Bates), and carouses with Picasso’s mistress, Adriana. Gil is rubbing elbows with artistic elite of 1920’s Paris, if only for a Cinderella moment. And happy as a pig in sh*t, more so than in his clumsy 21st Century life…


If this premise appeals to you, apparently it didn’t appeal to the masses. Well, some of the masses. I guess I’m one of the few that found it appealing; otherwise I wouldn’t have rented it. Woody Allen’s films have almost always been intellectual, even the dumber stuff like Bananas and Sleeper. Midnight In Paris is the only movie in his filmography that I know of that has been so overtly intellectual. At lease, appealing to the intellectuals out there.

Am I saying that I’m an intellectual? Hell to the yeah. The notion of conversing about writing and getting tight on absinthe with Papa Hemingway charges me up. Watching Gertrude Stein argue with Pablo Picasso about each other’s interpretations of a portrait? Bring it on. Having Dali want to do and abstract portrait of me? “The Temptation of St. Anthony” is my favorite painting.

Does all that bother you? All that name-dropping? It would bother me too if I were outside the circle that Allen tries to condense into an hour and thirty minutes. It’s easy to see why folks could get alienated. The whole film is virtually a holy host of 1920’s celebs, too many for the hoi polloi. Too many writers, too many artists, too many non-Internet (save Wikipedia) connects to catch up with the times.

Enough about the dividing lines. What brought this film together for any smart audience to appreciate?

For one, the opening montage is great. Dozens of scenes showing off everything you need to know about Paris. The winding streets, the cafes, the out of the way places. Here is the setting. Adjust to it for the next 90 minutes, yer gonna be walking it. Good news is you won’t sweat.

Owen Wilson is at his Owen Wilsoniest here. Charmingly awkward. Wilson always has this air of “I’m in the wrong place” in most of his films, and it works really well as he Billy Pilgrim’s it between 2010 and 1920. This awkwardness translates into childlike wonder when Gil goes back in time and hobnobs with the writers and artists he meets, especially when he starts crushing hard on Picasso’s dame, Adriana (played gamely by a lovely Cottiliard). Yet on the flipside, this is a more mature Wilson, not so quick to act goofy and clueless to grab a laugh. This is not a laugh-out-loud film, but using Wilson as a guide, you get snickers. Following his childlike enthusiasm for this newfound world, you have to laugh inspite of yourself. It’s hard to be cynical with a movie like this one.

It’s the 1920’s, right? That means jazz and gin and flappers. The costumes are great. Everyone is nattily dressed in the attire of the times. Sumptuous attention to details. The backdrops to Gil’s fantasy world are so inviting that even if you’re not a big deal reader or even writer, you’d like to dip your toes into a party where the Charleston rules and gins flows like icy water. And as always, Allen’s soundtrack is  tasteful and thoughtful as ever, too.

Notable acting is key. Head and shoulders over the cast is Corey Stoll as Earnest Hemingway. His script is tight, just like his prose. And he has this stare that is just so convincing. Allison Pill as Zelda Fitzgerald is a hoot too, flapper incarnate and perpetually drunk and borderline psycho. Good stuff.

The whole film had a sophisticated Twilight Zone feel. Man hates present. Man visits past. Man wants to stay in past. The past in not where he belongs. The film questions the idea of a “Golden Age.” I’ve read somewhere that a Golden Age is when you were 12 years old. Despite the fact Gil is well over twelve when he takes his stroll into the Parisian version of the Zone, his juvenile enthusiasm is infectious.

Even if you’re not a self-proclaimed intellectual, you can appreciate what’s going on. This movie isn’t about who you rub elbows with, it’s about being comfortable with yourself. In your own shoes. Hell, there’s a message we all should hear once in a while. With or without the bathtub gin.

But hopefully with.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Get over yer pretensions and have a laugh (or more accurately a chuckle) with Wilson. As we travel afar with Owen, it brings to mind that old saying, “No matter where you go, there you are.”


Stray Observations…

  • “I’m working on a…Where am I?”
  • Hemingway: “Have you ever hunted?” Gil: “Only for bargains.”
  • The set pieces were amazing. I mean, I wasn’t extant in the ‘20’s, but it gave me the feeling of realism all the same. And I guess during America’s Prohibition years, Paris was the place to be.
  • I should learn French.
  • My uncle taught Owen Wilson at St. Mark’s. And his brother Luke. And Old 97’s singer Rhett Miller. Just sayin’.

Next Installment…

Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey, Jr. and Mark Ruffalo form a wobbly alliance to hunt the Zodiac. Let’s hope they got enough crossword puzzles.